What determines your success as a legal teacher?



Surprise: It is not your skill as a teacher that determines the outcome of your teaching activities. The success you as a teacher can achieve is determined by your students’ prior knowledge. More precisely, the   knowledge relative to the learning requirements of a course. This factor can help or hinder the student’s learning process.

Your students’ prior knowledge forms the only basis on which he or she can build new long term knowledge and skills. Learning is about integrating the new with the existing. Abstracted: Exposed to the same amount of teaching, your student A, possessing half the prior knowledge from student B, should be able to learn much less than student B.

Is there sufficient cognitive basis to build on?
Generally, what is needed for teaching success?  Successful teaching should start from the existing level of student’s prior knowledge.

Unfortunately, that is very different from what I observe how legal teaching actually happens: The teacher determines what he/she wants to teach and “starts the teaching engine” to reach the “learning goals” – skipping to check whether students possess necessary prior knowledge; such knowledge is, consciously or unconsciously, assumed to be present by the teacher.

Prevent wasteful teaching
In many cases the teacher overestimates students’ prior knowledge. As a result, new knowledge is built on a shaky foundation. Learners cannot connect the new skill and knowledge to existing skill and knowledge. The new skill and knowledge, lacking a cognitive anchor, will quickly evaporate.

Often during teaching, but more frequently after the teaching is over, the teacher finds out that the learners were not able to catch up with the teaching. The outcome of the teaching is that learners hardly learn anything. Sometimes such failure of learning is found out after the course is over by the learners, peers, managers or clients. Wasted energy and frustration is the result.

This could have been prevented. What was needed was checking whether the learners possessed sufficient prior knowledge. Without it, despite appearances, the teacher has been basically talking to him/herself.

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